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Durants Made History in Hollywood Hills Home

Special to The Times: Kanner is a Los Feliz-area free-lance writer

History was not made in the breakfast room of Ariel and Will Durant’s Hollywood Hills home.

According to their granddaughter, Monica Mehill, the celebrated historians left scholarship behind when they dined in the hexagonally shaped room. It was a room with a view of the Hollywood skyline, fruit trees, and birds and deer in the foreground. It became their retreat.

Six years after their deaths, the Spanish Colonial-style house is once again for sale. Jodi Hodges, a broker with Hoover Realtors, has the $1.1-million listing.

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When the Durants lived there, on a typical morning her grandfather came down a dramatic, wrought-iron-railed staircase at about 6:30 a.m., and headed for his standard whole-wheat bread and grapefruit breakfast, Mehill recalled. Ariel remained upstairs in a large master suite. After he’d put on a three-piece suit, Will greeted Ariel at 8 a.m. in their ground-floor study.

The billiard room upstairs, long their office, was retired as such after they determined not to go up and down the stairs more than once a day.

They made history on the dining room table, where Ariel spread scraps of color-coded paper, covered with Will’s thoughts on the eras that extended from “The Age of Faith” to “Rousseau and Revolution.” The first three volumes of “The Story of Civilization” had been written in their native New York.

At lunch time, Sarah, Mary and Flora Kaufman came from homes on Franklin Avenue to join their sister Ariel, who had changed her name from Ida when she married Will in 1913.

Sometimes brother Harry joined them, while other times, the Durants’ daughter, Ethel Benvenuta, visited her parents. She was raising her daughter, Monica, in the same Hollywood neighborhood.

Will didn’t eat much lunch, preferring to spread a magazine on his bookstand and tune out his in-laws.

The historians returned to the adjacent office and dining room, working until 3 p.m.

Daily Constitutional

Then Ariel would put on her gardening gloves, and dig into their 1-acre spread. Will took a daily constitutional down the hill to Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School, which his granddaughter attended.

After he escorted her home, he returned to the house on Briarcliff Road, and worked with his wife on the history until well after dark. They dined lightly in the breakfast room and went to bed.

Ariel ceased to eat when Will became a heart patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. On Oct. 25, 1981, she died at the age of 83. He died two weeks later at 96.

So well known was their enduring 70-year relationship that when Times cartoonist Paul Conrad depicted them in heaven, with Ariel wearing a gown and roller skates, it did not need to be explained that she had roller skated to their wedding 68 years before.

She Married at 15

As the obituaries pointed out, she was 15 when she left her family in Harlem and skated to New York City Hall, where her teacher-bridegroom waited.

After the wedding, they struggled financially until 1926, when Will’s “The Story of Philosophy” became a best seller and presaged what would happen with their 11-volume civilization series.

The Durants had different faiths; she was a Russian Jew, and his Catholicism sprang from French-Canadian roots.

“It was our differences that made us grow,” Ariel told her granddaughter.

They had moved to “The Oaks” neighborhood in 1943, where they discovered one of a dozen massive Mediterranean houses that had been built on speculation in the early 1920s.

Sales brochures uncovered by Ruth Solner, the historian of the Hollywood Hills Improvement Assn., reveal that the area was first known as “Ponet Terrace.”

Established Consulate

Victor Ponet, a Belgian, established his country’s consulate here, and founded the German American Savings Bank. An undertaker also, he was one of the founders of Evergreen Cemetery.

The Oaks area is still popular with physicians and celebrities. In the latter group, Pee Wee Herman, Mario Machado, Jane Withers and Elvira are residents.

Three homes have been granted historic-cultural monument status by the city. The 1928 Samuel Navarro house, designed by Lloyd Wright, sprawls over a canyon floor where Valley Oak Drive meets Verde Oak Drive. The Taggart house on Black Oak Drive is another late 1920s Wright design.

The third, the Morgan Arzner house on West Live Oak Drive, has a row of Ionic columns and a garden of cactus. It was built by pioneer film director Dorothy Arzner and dancer Marjorie Morgan. According to the present owner, Dr. James Wiegerink, who is restoring it, the house contains all its original architectural elements, from friezes to 1930s-vintage light fixtures.

Architectural Diversity

The area has the architectural diversity of the city as a whole, from the sedate work of Paul Williams and Wallace Neff, to the more innovative houses of Gregory Ain and John Lautner. Research is being conducted by Solner to learn the name of the architect/builder who constructed the almost two dozen original Spanish Colonial-style homes, including the Durants’.

When Les and Eileen Watt purchased the Durant estate from Ethel Benvenuta in 1982, they knew only that it was falling apart. The grounds had not been cared for, the house was riddled with raccoons, and general maintenance had been neglected for years. There were rooms that had not been painted since 1923.

Once the garage was cleared of the foreign language editions of “The Story of Civilization” and the tower room was relieved of hundreds of boxes of books, the raccoons were removed to a wild life station in the San Fernando Valley. The Watts, who are in the florist trade, sent out architectural elements, such as wall sconces and drapery rods, to be replated.

The fireplace and fountain tiles were cleaned, and under the grime, they found the work of master tile artist Ernest Batchelder. Under wall-to-wall carpets were marble and tile floors. The easiest restoration took place on the leaded-glass windows.

Attracts Celebrities

The most difficult was sandblasting the exterior of the house, then stripping chinoiserie downspouts and wrought-iron trim. The Watts believe all that remains to be done is to replace the tile roof.

The Oaks-Canyon-Ferndall area is attractive to affluent young people because the homes, with the quality of their neighbors in Los Feliz, don’t cost nearly as much.

When Banks Montgomery, a partner of Montgomery Management Co., found a home on Green Oak Drive, he was impressed with its ‘50s details.

Felt ‘at Home’

When he walked in the front door, he felt “instantly at home,” he said.

During escrow on the house, he learned why the area seemed so comfortable. A cousin told him that the Oaks had also been known as Ponet Terrace. Ponet is the name of Montgomery’s grandmother. Her father was Victor Ponet.

Serendipity struck Monica Mehill at about the same time. Her mother died last year, leaving her to sift through the hundreds of boxes of Durant papers.

In a stash of shoe boxes, Monica found her grandparents’ love letters, written while they were still struggling and Will was explaining world events to Ariel. Someday soon, they may be published.


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